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You may have heard – for quite some time now – that those oh so tasty char marks on your grilled food contains cancer-causing properties.

It’s sad, but true, according to a large growing body of evidence.

When high heat temperatures come into contact with specific amino acids and creatine on meat, carcinogenic compounds, called heterocyclic amines – HCA’s – are produced. Additional carcinogens are produced when fat drips onto the heating element and causes smoke to shoot up, or when meats have black crispy bits on them. These are called PAH’s – polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons.

(Take note: this only occurs on meat and seafood. Fruits and vegetables lack the amino acids needed for this reaction to take place.)

The good news is that HCA levels can be greatly reduced by using marinades or rubs containing specific foods like garlic, rosemary, citrus, cherries and virgin olive oil. These foods can also be mixed into meats, such as hamburgers or patties, to help reduce their mutagenic capacity. Research shows that using these methods can reduce HCA levels and mutagenic capacity anywhere between 60% and 90%!

What else can you do to keep your summer grilling foods a little safer to eat?

  • Cook at lower temperatures. High heat and long cooking times greatly increases HCA production.
  • Reduce cooking times. Cut meat into smaller pieces and/or be careful not to overcook meats. Fish and seafood require less cooking time.
  • Cook lean meats, poultry and fish. Less fat = less drippings = less PAH’s.
  • Marinade. One study found that using a marinade of 1 part lemon juice and 2 parts each of onion and garlic reduced HCA production by 80%. Using beer and wine as well as the ingredients listed above can also help. Avoid tomato and sugar based store bought BBQ sauce which has been shown to increase HCA production.
  • Beer and Wine. Drink them or marinade with them. The yeast in beer has been shown to have a neutralizing effect on HCA’s when used as a marinade or when consumed while eating grilled meats. That’s right – have a beer with that BBQ! Some reports stated that dark or stout beers were more effective than pale beers.
  • Fruits, vegetables and tofu haven’t shown any signs of HCA production.

The American Institute for Cancer Research has published some great marinade recipes. I’m trying them out and I hope you will too.

Happy Grilling!


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